Americana

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

In 2017 I followed my usual reading plan of no plan at all. I read whatever I wished, usually picking up the next book because of something I had read in the book before it or the book before that.

Next year will be different. It’s not that I need a change; I think, in the long run, serendipity is the only guide I require to discover what it is books offer–a map of the human heart, the key to all mythologies, new experiments in living, that sort of thing.

But in 2018 I will read only about America. The longer I live overseas the more I feel like I need to re-explain my homeland to myself. The place is always changing, and I think my distance has given me a certain perspective on what is means to be American in the swirling tides of recent history. We’re always in what I.F. Stone called a “time of torment” back in the 1960s. History never stands still, and neither does our identity.

slaves-white-house
Slaves in front of the White House, under construction (image: TopicBoss)

In a few days I’ll post the third part of an essay I’m writing on the question of what it means to be American. For a philosopher, I think I will give a pretty direct answer, which means many people will disagree with it. Thinking about that question has been stimulating, and because I derive all my answers from what other people write in books, it has awoken a need to read even more about America.

Here are the themes I will focus on in 2018:

  • Democracy. How vibrant is ours? How much has it changed over the years?
  • Slavery. Our country was built on it. Has ignoring this central part of our history poisoned our political culture?
  • Flight. In 1903 two Americans invented the airplane, a bicycle-based contraption with a lawnmower-type engine and wings. In 1969 Americans used the heir of this contraption, a rocket, to land on the moon. I often doubt I am sufficiently amazed by this 66-year period of innovation and adventure.
  • Presidents. They are a symbol of who we think we are. I want to know more about them.
  • War. Some of our costliest wars have proven dirty, pointless or trumped up in retrospect. Is this a pattern? Are we as good at war as we think?
  • Money. I think it has always run America. Can the lust for it be harnessed for good? What does our wealth structure mean for the next two or three generations of Americans?
  • Race: James Baldwin, one of my favorite essayists, directly accused white Americans of not wanting to confront our country’s racial divide. I will take up his challenge.
  • Criticism. I view all of life through literature’s lens. What do American critics tell us about the meaning of our country? What do the great American novels and poems tell us about ourselves?
  • AI. First, is this even an American thing? The quest for artificial intelligence belongs to no nation, and its roots were laid down by Alan Turing, an Englishman. As the richest, boldest experimenters in the field, though, Americans will usher in this brave new world, once again setting a global agenda. Do we know what we’re doing?
  • Christianity. Christian doctrine demands voluntary abasement before a singularly masochistic idea–that we are born sick and commanded to be well (and to love the author of this demented arrangement). Why do Americans, supposedly rugged individualists, believe such prurient, authoritarian nonsense? Or do they?

Well, that ought to keep me busy. In fact, this might be a two-year plan. We’ll be in touch as I set off to re-discover America. Suggestions welcome.

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